Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas was conceived 33 years ago and has been inducted recently. It is a momentous occasion in the history of India as far indigenisation is considered as the fighter jet is made in India by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). It is a celebration of the idea of a developing country like India which is sending a signal to the world that it is no more purely only a developing nation. India is in a position to make state-of-the-art Light Combat Aircraft which is world class.
The HAL-made Marut HF-24 fighter was inducted into service in April 1967, fought in the 1971 war in the Rajasthan sector and was decommissioned from the IAF in 1983. Thus, after a gap of nearly five decades, IAF has got an indigenously developed fighter aircraft.
The time period it took is however debateable as actually the funding for the programme came only in 1993 (so, only 23 years). It was flown in 2001 for first time within eight years, which is comparable with any record at anywhere in the world of an aircraft being developed from the funding stage to actual flight stage.
HAL Tejas is single-seat, single-jet engine, multi-role light fighter aircraft
Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) conceptualised the project and designed it from the drawing board.
HAL is the production agency despite western sanctions post Pokhran-II in 1998, no wonder the celebrations are called for.
National Flight Testing Center which is not much talked about but it has undertaken 3100 flights accident free on a development aircraft. When compared with unfortunate experience of Sweden, a leading aircraft manufacturer in the world losing two Gripen in flight testing phase. It is a matter of congratulations.
Tejas and its variants
The present version of Tejas will have 20 aircrafts which will be followed by another 20 planes of updated version and the third version starting in 2019 will be called Tejas MK1A. Newer versions will have better air-to-air missiles, precision, guided ammunition, will also carry a Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile.
The present Tejas does not have BVR missile. The improvements alone will change the dynamics. Currently, this aircraft has not much utility for Indian Air Force. It does not have the capability to fly in the critical battle spaces of Indian Air Force in the western, northern and eastern sectors where it is confronted with a twin challenge, collusive threat from Pakistan and China. This aircraft has at the moment no role for it. It has a role for local air defence as an interceptor to track down an enemy aircraft in Indian airspace. It was termed earlier as ‘close air support’ but now it is called battlefield airstrike.
Though Tejas is designed as a replacement to Mig21s, it cannot easily replace Mig21 at the moment due to its limited capability and production. For future development of this indigenous fighter aircraft, the government and Indian Air Force have in a calibrated manner evolved three matrices for Tejas.
1st Matrice: There will be 20 aircraft of current version which will be under Initial Operational Clearance (IOC). That will have a limited set of weapons and capability. Though it has fired LGB- Laser guided bomb, fired close combat missile and so, weapon fit wise and in terms of capability, it fits the bill. But it lacks the numbers. A squadron must have 16-18 aircrafts. Under IOC, the IAF had ordered 20, but only two have been taken over recently. A trainer, the third aircraft will follow soon. The timeline has been set for 6 more planes till December 2016, another 6 by end of 2017 and squadron will be raised completely by 2018.
2nd Matrice: It includes fleet of 20 upgraded Tejas versions. At the moment, HAL and IAF are more interested in first 20 aircrafts. The next 20 fleet with BVR missile technology will be introduced in 2019 because the production range of HAL is only 8 aircrafts an year. The present plane lacks few missiles which can be upgraded. The upgrade will take time once the newer versions and weapons are added. The upgradation is a challenge as one has to have technological ability, production capacity, design and development, manufacturing and many aerial best practices in place.
3rd Matrice: Tejas 1A will have the advanced radar, the AESA radar as it is called multi-tracked multi-scanned kill capability. It will have in flight refuelling and BVR missile firing technology.
All Tejas variants have very huge maintainability that’s why it is kept close to HAL Bengaluru. The squadron stays in Bengaluru for two years and then move to Sulur (TN). So, due to proximity and feedback mechanisms in place, day to day problems arising can be worked out.
The plan of 20+20+80 1As which are on order, the entire lot of 120 aircrafts will take next 12-15 years to get. In many ways, the Rafale or near-Rafale equivalents as an important induction are actually meant to meet the huge challenge the IAF faces today due to non-availability of Tejas. Its combat fleet from 40 squadrons that it sustained over nearly 3 decades declined to about 33 today and is rapidly reducing. So, this is where reports suggest that IAF is now trying to rationalise its fighter flying operations which is euphemism for trying to reduce hours so that it can extend the phase out time for the Mig21.
The fly-by-wire system in Tejas is developed by Bharat Electronics Ltd. But there are critics who point out that engine is from US and radar at the moment is from Israel. However, the airforce in a way believes that nobody makes all the technology as these are open-source technology which includes radar, Egyptian pilot seats which can be purchased from anywhere.
Reinventing the wheel and getting every component and sub component of a combat aircraft indigenously produced is not feasible. The reason is that these are low cost items and to set up a production line for a limited demand is not practical. Also, the requirement for multimode radar is in progress. Tejas uses Elta radar but, there are plans of replacing them in FOC aircraft or MK1A.
In terms of weapons in aircraft at the moment is fine except the BVR missile and the MK1A is being fitted with the AESA radar which is top of the shack multimode radar in the airborne mode.
Kaveri, the indigenous engine designed for Tejas somehow did not succeed. The alternative of Kaveri is thought of but it will take a while. But, there is no alternative to India actually developing the capability of manufacturing advanced aero engines or very high technology combat aircraft. But it’s a huge challenge.
The Tejas being inducted as the first step towards producing better fighter jets in India. So much has been talked about the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) which is India’s home grown version of fifth-generation fighter aircraft with Russian collaboration, which the IAF calls ‘the future perspective of multirole aircraft’. However, The AMCA is yet to do a project definition and feasibility study.
However, this is a phenomenal event for history of aeronautics in India. What needs to be done is the bigger challenge and how to synergise the efforts of all the stakeholders: HAL, ADA, the 200-300 tier-I, Tier-II and Tier-III ancillaries, and all small units supplying small micro elements as spares and components and sub-components for this aircraft which is a genuine capability development at a national level. It is not that one undertaking is a center of excellence and there is nothing else. So, all these have been synergised to make the project successful.
HAL needs to increase its production capacity from 8 to 16 aircrafts per year to meet its commitments. There are multiple discussions going on currently between HAL and Ministry of Defence and IAF. It is possible that initial operation clearance aircraft and final operations clearance aircraft both will run concurrently. So, two assembly lines is possible. But, that’s a time consuming process. Best business practices in terms of technological, managerial, human resource development, techniques being evolved in a synergised time frame are needed. It will take time as India is a newcomers in game of producing combat aircraft but it is doable.
Also, there were 43 improvements suggested to HAL for Tejas MK1A which includes lot of new issues like weapons, maintainability of aircraft etc. However, these minor improvements pointed out by CAG in 2015 have now reduced to 20. There were issues like flight safety dimension which cannot be compromised. But, the IAF has announced that these are removed. The 3100 flight tests are the testimony to flying skill of test pilots but also the quality control which has been institutional in aircraft for safety, reliability and very fine levels of maintainability,
National Aeronautics Commission
And thus, this is the time when the government needs a dynamic Prime Minister and equally dynamic Defence Minister to revisit the idea of National Aeronautics Commission. If space sector in India has shown such great successes, then there should not be any delay in establishing a National Aeronautics Commission which will speed up all the decision making, nimble footwork, monitoring mechanism and decisive actions to apply correctives whenever problems arise.
This is a doable proposition for military aviation to increasing IAF combat squadron but also enhancing the capabilities and getting into far higher trajectory in national development in this very highly complex sector. It is well known that aeronautics is the highest end technology a country can master. And now India is knocking at its doors which gives it capability in cross sectoral manner. Whatever benefits arise from this sector, it can go to other sectors of higher technological development.
The B K Chaturvedi Committee has strongly put forward in an unpublicised report to Ministry of Defence, the need of a National Aeronautics Commission to straddle civil and military sectors which will propel the country into the global map and help to create a respectable indigenous aviation industry (2012).
Fly-by-wire: a system that replaces the conventional manual flight controls of an aircraft with an electronic interface. The movements of flight controls are converted to electronic signals transmitted by wires (hence the fly-by-wire term), and flight control computers determine how to move the actuators at each control surface to provide the ordered response. The fly-by-wire system also allows automatic signals sent by the aircraft’s computers to perform functions without the pilot’s input, as in systems that automatically help stabilize the aircraft, or prevent unsafe operation of the aircraft outside of its airspeed and altitude.
BVR missile: An air-to-air missile that is capable of engaging at ranges of 37km or beyond. They are conceptually, operationally and technologically, massively complex affair. The future air combat will have missiles launched at targets that are way too far to be identified visually. Astra missile is an example.